Antoni Tàpies, a largely self-taught Spanish abstract painter whose seductive, tactile surfaces, often scratched with mysterious graffiti-like marks, made use of unconventional materials like marble dust, ground chalk, sand and earth, died on Monday in Barcelona. He was 88.
Douglas Baxter, a friend of the artist and president of the Pace Gallery, which has represented him since 1992, announced the death in a statement.
Mr. Tàpies (pronounced TAH-pee-ess) came to prominence in the late 1940s with richly symbolic paintings strongly influenced by Surrealist painters like Miró and Klee, a style he abandoned by the mid-1950s as he turned to what became his signature work: the heavily built-up surfaces that were often scratched, pitted and gouged and incised with letters, numbers and signs.
Using a wide variety of materials, on canvases and boards that often suggested walls, doors, windows or gates, he grounded his work in the brute reality of the Spanish street and in the turbulent political dramas of his youth in Catalonia, including the Spanish Civil War and a Catalan nationalist movement.
“The dramatic sufferings of adults and all the cruel fantasies of those of my own age, who seemed abandoned to their own impulses in the midst of so many catastrophes, appeared to inscribe themselves on the walls around me,” he told the French dealer and art critic Michel Tapié in 1969. “My first works of 1945 already had something of the graffiti of the streets and a whole world of protest — repressed, clandestine, but full of life — a life which was also found on the walls of my country.”
The rich, painterly textures and sober use of color in his “matter paintings” lent a moving solemnity — the critic John Russell referred to their “seignorial dignity” — to works that “seemed to have been not so much painted as excavated from an idiosyncratic compound of mud, sand, earth, dried blood and powdered minerals.”
Mr. Tàpies chafed at being characterized as an abstract painter. At the same time, he refused to explicate the tantalizing scratches, letters and crosses that seemed to offer the viewer a text. His dreamlike symbols, fished from the soup of the unconscious, suggested an ancient language waiting to be deciphered, but Mr. Tàpies declined to assist.
He did, however, place his work in the realm of the sacred, but a world far removed from his strict Catholic upbringing. “In our world, in which religious images are losing their meaning, in which our customs are getting more and more secular, we are losing our sense of the eternal,” he said on the BBC arts program Omnibus in 1990. “I think it’s a loss that has done a great deal of damage to modern art. Painting is a return to origins.”
Antoni Tàpies Puig was born in Barcelona on Dec. 13, 1923. His father was a lawyer and Catalan nationalist who served briefly with the Republican government. At 17, Mr. Tàpies suffered a near-fatal heart attack caused by tuberculosis. He spent two years as a convalescent in the mountains, reading widely and pursuing an interest in art that had already expressed itself when he was in his early teens.
To please his father, he enrolled in the University of Barcelona to study law, but he continued to produce art and for two months studied drawing at the Valls Academy. With the Catalan poet and playwright Joan Brossa, he founded Dau al Set (“The Seven-Spotted Die”), a progressive arts magazine, and, at an exhibition of his work in Barcelona, befriended Miró, a decisive influence.
In 1954 he married Teresa Barba Fàbregas. They had three children, Antoni, Miguel and Clara.
His earliest works were collage-based abstract paintings on cardboard that anticipated the arte povera movement of the 1960s in their use of such humble materials as string and scraps of paper. After studying in Paris, where he met Picasso, a fellow Spaniard, Mr. Tàpies began exhibiting regularly and, after the Surrealist adventures of his “magic period,” he set about transforming himself into a painter who, as the critic Roland Penrose put it in his monograph “Tàpies” (1978), “a painter who was to create mysteries in matter itself.”
In 1953 he had his first shows in the United States, at the Marshall Field Art Gallery in Chicago and the Martha Jackson gallery in New York, where he first saw the work of the Abstract Expressionists. “They were wrestling with canvases, using violent colors and huge brush strokes,” he recalled in an interview with The New York Times in 1995. “I arrived with gray, silent, sober, oppressed paintings. One critic said they were paintings that thought.”
In 1958 Mr. Tàpies represented Spain in the Venice Biennale with his compatriot Eduardo Chillida. Four years later, he was given a solo show at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
The art critic Stuart Preston, reviewing the Guggenheim exhibition in The New York Times, wrote: “The word subtlety is crude when applied to the astonishing textural and coloristic variations that Tàpies, whose taste is unerring to the point of preciosity, manages to confect.” (Mr. Tàpies’s work had also been part of the Guggenheim’s inaugural exhibition in 1959.)
With the rise of Pop Art and Conceptualism, Mr. Tàpies’s reputation declined in the United States, although many of his “object works” of the late 1960s and early ’70s incorporate some elements of both movements, with a Surrealist spin. Works like “Mattress” (1971), an actual mattress painted with blood-like stains and ripped down the center to reveal horsehair stuffing, and “Desk and Straw” (1970), a rather worn wooden office desk piled high with heaps of straw, suggested the influence of Robert Rauschenberg.
In one of his more whimsical works, “Sock” (1971), he affixed a man’s white sock to a canvas. This theme would return with a vengeance in 1992, when the new National Museum of Catalan Art commissioned a work of sculpture for its central hall. Mr. Tàpies created a furor when he submitted a model for a dirty sock that, when executed, would rise to a height of 40 feet. The sculpture was never made.
In 1984 Mr. Tàpies created the Tàpies Foundation, dedicated to the study of modern art. In 1990 it opened a museum and library in the premises of a former publishing house in Barcelona. Its holdings include nearly 2,000 examples of his work.
He was the subject of retrospective exhibitions at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 1994 and at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid in 2000.
Age did not diminish his output, although much of his work after 1980 returned to old themes and images. In January 2010 he exhibited his work at the Toni Tàpies Gallery in Barcelona, owned by his son Antoni, and in the following March his work of the past 20 years was the subject of an exhibition organized for the reopening of the Tàpies Foundation after an extensive renovation.
“My illusion is to have something to transmit,” he said when his museum opened in 1990. “If I can’t change the world, at least I want to change the way people look at it.”